How do you define who you are? Think about the various components that make up your vision of yourself. Where did they originate? If you're like most people, your identity is formed to a large extent by what you remember from your past and by what other people think about you and tell you about yourself.
I call the intersection of your past and other people's feedback your "reflected" identity. Here's an example. Let's say you're someone who has a problem with follow-up. It's something your boss and colleagues have criticized you for. Now your spouse is telling you the same thing about yourself, reinforcing this image of yourself as someone who isn't good at follow-up.
As a professional who relies on feedback as a tool for helping people change for the better, I would never disparage the value of this sort of information. However, I feel obligated to note that not all feedback is offered in good faith or in the most forgiving or generous of spirits. That's why you need to be careful in terms of defining yourself through your reflected identity. If you define yourself solely through your reflected identity, you may find yourself stuck identifying yourself by behaviors that you don't often do anymore, if at all.
Perhaps your spouse constantly reminds you of your one or two failures as a mate. Or maybe you have a colleague who never misses an opportunity to remind you of one of your more serious workplace mishaps. Do you have a boss whose only impression of you is some less-than-brilliant statement you made in a meeting two years ago, which he repeats to anyone who will listen whenever your name comes up?
FEEDBACK THAT CAN HOLD YOU BACK
While most types of feedback are quite fair, some aren't. Sure, they might be masked as the ribbing and back-slapping that is supposed to be part of a lively corporate environment, where one-liners and "humor" are meant to be fun. Sometimes these little jokes and stabs at one another aren't fun. In an environment where we tend to become what other people say we are, the wrong kind of feedback can be limiting and destructive.
People who keep reflecting your worst moments back to you, with the implication that these moments reveal the real you, are no different than the friend who sees you attempting a new diet, then reminds you about how many diets you've tried and failed to execute in the past. Such people are trying to suck you back to a past self—someone you used to be—not who you are or want to become.
It's likely that we've all found some value in paying attention to our reflected identity, but it's important to keep a healthy skepticism about it as well. At its worst, your reflected identity can be based on little more than hearsay and gossip and may tarnish your reputation. At its best, it may enhance your reputation—and help you succeed. Either way, it's not necessarily a true reflection of who you are.
Even if your reflected identity is accurate, remember that it doesn't have to be predictive. We can all change.
Life is good.
My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.
See my other posts at BusinessWeek.com